The current Marburg virus illness outbreaks in Equatorial Guinea and Tanzania are only the most recent zoonotic diseases to be documented in Africa. Such epidemics have increased in the region, with a 63% increase between 2012 and 2022 compared to the preceding decade. Between 2001 and 2022, zoonotic illnesses accounted for roughly 32% of the region’s infectious disease outbreaks.
Dr. Tieble Traore, Emergency Preparedness Technical Officer at the WHO Regional Office for Africa, on how African countries should plan to respond successfully to zoonotic disease outbreaks such as Marburg.
What are the causes of the increased frequency of Marburg outbreaks?
Four Marburg outbreaks have been recorded in Equatorial Guinea, Ghana, Guinea, and Tanzania since 2020, compared to only three between 2010 and 2020. Marburg isn’t the only zoonotic disease causing increasingly frequent outbreaks in Africa. In 2019 and 2020, zoonotic diseases accounted for over half of all public health occurrences. Nearly 70% of these outbreaks were caused by the Ebola Virus Disease and kindred viral hemorrhagic fevers such as Marburg.
There might be a number of causes for the rise in zoonotic cases, including environmental, animal, and human variables. Africa is faced with a number of difficulties, such as shifting patterns of animal and human migration, poorly implemented veterinary regulations regarding meat consumption, the trade in wildlife, a complex food system, unregulated and subpar antimicrobial medicines, changes in land use, biodiversity loss, and other issues. All of them accelerate the spread of fatal new diseases like Marburg.
How can countries reduce risks and prevent outbreaks?
Once a zoonotic disease is identified, governments should be prepared to deploy resources swiftly to limit disease transmission, prevent and treat cases, and engage communities in a strong and efficient response.
Having said that, preparation and readiness are essential. Though we don’t know what caused the Marburg outbreaks in Equatorial Guinea and Tanzania, we do know that Africa’s capacity to detect and analyze samples for viral hemorrhagic fevers like Marburg and Ebola is growing. This finding and reporting of an epidemic mean that the public is better aware of a potentially hazardous disease that is circulating among communities. This makes it possible for those skilled in epidemic management to assist such crises swiftly, whether by sending technical know-how or delivering medical supplies. Working with local people to spread knowledge about potentially harmful zoonotic illnesses like Marburg, how they may be contracted, and when to notify health authorities is crucial.
Four UN organizations—the Food and Agriculture Organization, the United Nations Environment Programme, the World Organisation for Animal Health, and WHO—have called for increased global action to achieve One Health, which is a comprehensive approach to a pressing and complex challenge facing our society and aims to strengthen health systems among other things.
What is the WHO doing to help countries in managing this risk?
WHO is collaborating with its Member States to improve their capacity for planning for, preventing, guarding against, reacting to, and recovering from health emergencies, such as the continuing Marburg outbreaks. It is critical that health personnel is sufficiently trained and equipped to diagnose infectious illnesses and initiate the appropriate response. The Organization has assisted countries in strengthening laboratory capacities, conducting joint simulation exercises to test and improve public health emergency readiness, and in promoting the resilience of systems for emergencies, strengthening and engaging response groups for emergencies, and transforming Africa’s disease surveillance systems through its Emergency Preparedness and Response flagship project.